U.S. President Donald Trump praised his attorney general, William Barr, on Wednesday for intervening in the political corruption case against Trump confidant Roger Stone to seek a reduced sentence after career prosecutors had recommended a term of up to nine years.
"Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought," Trump said on Twitter about the case linked to the long investigation of the 2016 election won by Trump.
Four career government prosecutors -- all of whom left the case after Barr intervened -- had recommended that the 67-year-old Stone, a long-time political trickster on behalf of Republican candidates, be handed a seven-to-nine-year term. He was convicted in November of seven charges, including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of the congressional investigation stemming from then-special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the election.
After the prosecutors, who are part of the Justice Department headed by Barr, made their sentencing recommendation, top Justice officials said they were shocked by the length of the suggested term for Stone when he is sentenced next week.
In a new court filing late Tuesday, the government said a term of up to nine years "could be considered excessive and unwarranted," but left it up to the judge hearing the case to decide what the appropriate sentence should be.
Stone's lawyers are calling for probation, pointing to their client's age and lack of a criminal history.
Trump attacked the original sentencing proposal, disparagingly comparing it to the two-month sentence in 2018 handed to a Senate Intelligence Committee staff member for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about contacts he had with media sources.
"Two months in jail for a Swamp Creature, yet 9 years recommended for Roger Stone (who was not even working for the Trump Campaign). Gee, that sounds very fair! Rogue prosecutors maybe? The Swamp!" Trump tweeted.
Stone is one of the more colorful figures in American politics. He proudly sports a tattoo on his back of former President Richard Nixon, the only U.S. leader to ever resign, leaving office in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate political scandal just ahead of his certain impeachment in the House of Representatives.
He has been a confidant and adviser to Trump since the 1980s and played a role in his 2016 campaign. Stone sought to find negative information about Trump's Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
Early Tuesday, after the prosecutors' first sentencing recommendation, Trump tweeted, “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Later in the day, he denied intervening in the case with the Justice Department, telling reporters, "I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn't believe. I didn't speak to them. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous … an insult to our country."
Asked whether he was considering a pardon for Stone, Trump replied, "I don't want to talk about that now."
The Justice Department said it made the decision to ask for a shorter sentence for Stone on Monday night — before Trump's tweet about the case in the wee hours of Tuesday — although it was not announced until hours after Trump made the remark on Twitter.
In politically charged Washington, the shorter sentence recommendation immediately raised new questions about Trump's influence over the Justice Department, which is meant to operate independently and without political favor in criminal cases and investigations.
A watchdog group, Restore Public Trust, is calling for a congressional investigation and for the Justice Department's inspector general to find out if political interference played a role in changing the sentencing recommendation.
"President Trump's interference into the Department of Justice for political reasons is a betrayal to our democracy," Lizzy Price, director of Restore Public Trust, said in a statement.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the chamber, immediately sent a letter to the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz formally requesting an investigation into the reduced sentencing recommendation.
The chairman of the intelligence committee in the House, which is controlled by the Democrats, said if Trump intervened to reverse the sentencing recommendation it would be a blatant abuse of power.
"Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the attorney general will join him in that effort," Congressman Adam Schiff said. "Coupled with the president's blatant retaliation against those who helped expose his wrongdoing, the Trump Administration poses the gravest threat to the rule of law in America in a generation."
Steve Herman, Ken Bredemeier contributed to this story.